Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

Getting ahead of the facts on Iran

Headlines are tricky and difficult. They’re written quickly, with print and Web publishing deadlines always looming, and with space limitations, yet headline writers try to be creative, informative, and occasionally, humorous.

Few readers remember the hundreds of well-crafted headlines that entice yet describe a story accurately. But when a headline is bad, it sticks with you, like a burr you can’t get out of your sock.

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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So it was with recent headlines that appeared on one of The Post’s online photo galleries.

I was bombarded — about 1,500 e-mails — with complaints about this headline (it was an organized campaign, but more about that in a minute).

The photo slideshow depicted Iran’s nuclear research facilities and originally had a headline and subhead that readers felt were misleading: “Iran’s quest to possess nuclear weapons,” the main headline said, followed by this subhead: “Intelligence shows that Iran received foreign assistance to overcome key hurdles in acquiring a nuclear weapon, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

The gallery was linked to two stories by The Post’s national intelligence reporter, Joby Warrick, one on Nov. 6 and one on Nov. 8 describing the latest IAEA report, in which the U.N. agency said that Iran’s drive for nuclear technology has military aspects that could bring it to the threshold of a nuclear bomb.

But the IAEA report does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one, only that its multiyear effort pursuing nuclear technology is sophisticated and broad enough that it could be consistent with building a bomb.

Iran steadfastly denies it is aiming for a nuclear bomb and says its program is aimed at civilian nuclear energy and research. Of course, Tehran could be lying. But no one knows for sure.

This is what the U.S. director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March: “We continue to assess [that] Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

So are there 1,500 Post readers so attuned to headlines that they wrote me spontaneously to object? Well, no.

This was an effort organized by a left-leaning nonprofit group called Just Foreign Policy. On the group’s board, among others, are Julian Bond, longtime NAACP chairman, and Tom Hayden, former California legislator and 1960s activist. Founded in 2006, Just Foreign Policy is a shoestring operation, and it has no staff in Washington.

Robert Naiman, a recent master’s degree graduate from the University of Illinois, runs the group’s online campaigns from his home in Urbana.

“We’re not a super-sophisticated operation,” Naiman acknowledged with a chuckle. But it is savvy enough to use the Web effectively. “We try to inform and agitate,” he added. The group works mainly to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to prevent new ones, such as with Iran.

“Most of what I do is read the newspaper and try to tell people about what I read,” Naiman said. “I stumbled on the headline, and was astonished, even knowing The Post’s editorial line on Iran. I’m old-fashioned. The editorial page is one thing and the news is the other. The gallery headlines belonged more in the former and not the latter.”

So he spotlighted the headline on the top of Just Foreign Policy’s home page, with this message: “U.S. media helped railroad the nation into war with Iraq by treating unproven claims about Iraq’s alleged [weapons of mass destruction] program as facts. Now we’re seeing the same behavior concerning Iran.”

Visitors to Naiman’s site could click on a link that sent a pre-written e-mail urging yours truly to fact-check the headline. Daily Kos and other left-leaning Web sites picked it up, adding fuel to the fire. Pretty soon, the ombudsman’s inbox was crammed.

I think Naiman and his Web army were right. The headline and subhead were misleading.

Photo galleries generally are built by photo editors and then passed to copy editors for captions and headlines. I couldn’t identify exactly where in the process these headlines went wrong, but when I raised the issue it was quickly fixed.

In a Web-driven world, one bad headline can circle the globe in minutes and undermine The Post’s credibility. It can also play into the hands of those who are seeking further confrontation with Iran.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/omblog.

 
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